UN tries to restore faith in Lebanese mission

A team arrives in Lebanon tomorrow to look into Hizbullah's abduction of Israelis.

United Nations investigators are scheduled to arrive in Lebanon this weekend to try to salvage the world body's reputation. Israel is harshly criticizing the UN's handling of the events surrounding the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers by Lebanese Hizbullah guerrillas last October.

UN headquarters in New York ordered the investigation, headed by an American undersecretary-general, Joseph Connor, after Israel accused it of bias and covering up evidence that may contain clues to the kidnapping and possibly shed light on the well-being of the captive soldiers.

Since the soldiers were snatched 10 months ago, Hizbullah has refused to divulge any information about them.

At the heart of the controversy is a videotape shot by an Indian peacekeeper a day after the soldiers were abducted. The tape shows two vehicles abandoned by Hizbullah militants that are thought to have been used to whisk away the Israeli soldiers, and their contents. The UN denied several times to Israel that the tape existed, before admitting at the end of June that the video was in fact sitting in a drawer in the department of peacekeeping operations in New York.

Israel howled coverup; UN insiders suggested mix-up.

An embarrassed UN offered Lebanon and Israel the opportunity to attend a joint viewing of a doctored version of the videotape, in which the faces of suspected Hizbullah militants were erased. Lebanon said it was uninterested. Israel also rejected the offer, demanding an unedited version.

But the UN, reluctant to breach its policy of strict neutrality, has refused to hand the tape over to Israel.

The crisis in relations soured even further with a campaign waged in the Israeli media in which Indian troops serving with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) were accused of having been bribed by Hizbullah with "alcoholic beverages, Lebanese girls, and large sums of money" to look the other way when the soldiers were kidnapped.

The kidnapping occurred just 500 yards from a hilltop observation post manned by Indian UNIFIL soldiers. The peacekeepers' failure to intervene in the abduction has fueled the belief in Israel that the Indians were willing accomplices in the operation.

Israel also said the Hizbullah kidnapping team had been wearing Indian military uniforms to lure the Israeli soldiers.

The charges have incensed UNIFIL, which has one of the most sensitive peacekeeping operations in the world, wedged for 23 years between warring Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas and the Israeli Army.

"Total slander," says UNIFIL's spokesman Timur Goksel in response to the Israeli accusations.

The UN team of seven investigators is expected to explore every allegation raised by Israel. Their task will not be easy. The Indian troops that were deployed in the vicinity of the kidnapping left Lebanon last November. They have been replaced by another battalion from India. UNIFIL's commander, Maj. Gen. Seth Kofi Obeng, who had possession of the disputed tape from October until May, when he handed it to the UN in New York, has also departed the peacekeeping force.

UN soldiers privately express bitterness at the charges raised against them, and maintain that the events surrounding the kidnapping were "handled appropriately."

"At no stage did we compromise the integrity of the UN," says a former UN military observer who was closely involved in the investigation in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping.

The kidnapping operation on Oct. 7 last year was well-planned and professionally executed. The Hizbullah fighters had been manning an observation post just 100 yards from a disputed strip of mountainous territory known as the Shebaa Farms, which was captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, but is claimed by Lebanon. Israeli troops patrolling the border road had grown accustomed to the sight of Hizbullah militants on the other side of the fence.

The Indian soldier on observation duty in the UN post 500 yards away saw the beginning of the operation. The Hizbullah team detonated two bombs after the three Israeli soldiers stopped their vehicle beside the fence, possibly for a routine inspection of the padlock on a border gate. The bombs exploded 50 yards from the soldiers, most likely in a bid to stun or wound the victims rather than kill them. The Indian peacekeeper's view became obscured when the Hizbullah militants hurled smoke grenades at the Israeli soldiers. The abduction coincided with a heavy-artillery and rocket bombardment by Hizbullah of nearby Israeli Army outposts. The Indian peacekeepers, believing a conventional attack was under way, took cover in their bomb shelter inside the post in line with standard procedure.

The former UN military observer said that allegations of Indian collusion in the kidnapping were "absurd."

Language and cultural differences between the Indian troops and local Lebanese, as well as Hizbullah's strict adherence to secrecy and security surrounding their operations, contradicted the suggestion that Indians cooperated in the capture of the soldiers, he said.

The controversial videotape was shot the following day, when UN personnel inspected a white Nissan Pathfinder and a dark green Range Rover found three miles from the scene of the kidnapping. Inside the vehicles, the UN soldiers found two old Irish Army uniforms, weapons, a radio set, explosives, a UNIFIL registration plate, a UN sign, and a quantity of blood.

The UNIFIL equipment prompted the speculation that the Hizbullah captors had been disguised as peacekeepers. But a photograph taken during the kidnapping operation and released the next day by Hizbullah pictured three armed fighters dressed in civilian clothing guiding the Range Rover through the border gate. The UN military observer said that the Irish uniforms had not been worn.

Goksel says the videotape was part of UNIFIL's internal investigation, and the UN is not obliged to hand it to the Israeli authorities.

As for the charge that the Indian soldiers were negligent in failing to intervene in the abduction, Goksel says that it was not UNIFIL's role to interfere.

"We have handed over the border area to the Lebanese authorities," he says. "Our soldiers are not border guards."

UNIFIL is present in Lebanon at the request of the Lebanese government, which formally renews the request every six months.

"The Lebanese government supports operations by Hizbullah against the Israeli Army, and we have no choice but to respect that," Goksel says. "Otherwise our mandate has to change."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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